I’ve written about empowerment before, but I feel like the point I was attempting to make was somewhat diluted by the emotions of the experiences I was recounting. Those experiences, I feel, were necessary to add context and background to the concerns I had, but also took attention away from the main focal point of my argument: self-empowerment is an underutilized tool in mental health and recovery.
This topic was brought back into my line of vision recently, and I wanted to take a moment to clarify what I mean by self-empowerment, and what I believe a reliance on external motivation can do to harm our mental health.
I want to go way back to the beginning, when my eating disorder first started taking hold. I have since, through reflection and a heck of a lot of time, been able to pinpoint why my eating disorder began- I didn’t have a sense of identity. I didn’t have a place in society, as a middle school student who didn’t play sports, didn’t have a job, didn’t have a talent. I felt faceless and out of control of my own life, and thus, I seized control of my food to an extreme in order to compensate.
I was not self-empowered. I did not have a sense of internal motivation to make myself a better person, simply because I couldn’t imagine a world where I could reasonably get there. I was depressed, and with that comes apathy, lack of motivation, and aversion to change. My parents, knowing that something was wrong but not knowing how to handle it, took me to therapy. And it was here that I completely relinquished control of my situation.
It was not the fault of anyone other than myself and the way the mind sometimes works. It wasn’t that my parents “sent me away” to get better, although it sometimes felt like it. It wasn’t that my therapist didn’t encourage me to reflect and reassess, but rather that I thought those things were to ugly to look at. It was simply me, deciding that all these people around me were going to just fix everything, and the best I could do was show up.
Here lies a common problem in the treatment of mental illness- we often view therapists and doctors as all-powerful healers who can patch us up and make us better whether we want to or not. But these illnesses are remarkably, almost unfathomably, complex, and it’s not like a flu where you can will yourself to stay sick all you want but as long as you take your medicine you’ll get better. The nature of mental ailments is untreatable with simple cures, but rather a long, slow process of evaluation and adjustments that requires full participation and motivation from the patient.
But I didn’t understand this at the time. It was as though I thought I’d absorb wellbeing through osmosis simply by sitting in a therapist’s chair. I was learning to give myself up to anyone who I saw as able of helping me, and it wasn’t delegated to professionals. I’ve said before that for a long time, I believed I didn’t have an eating disorder, and when people around me started telling me that I did, I wanted constant confirmation that that was what was going on. I opened up to one or two close friends about my situation, and found myself going to them again and again for validation. It wasn’t conscious, but rather an unconscious attempt to assure myself that I needed help, needed change. Anytime things started to feel tough or impossible, I’d rush to them upset, listen to their advice, and only absorb the reassurance that yes, something was wrong.
I did nothing with that advice, of course, but instead reminded myself that I was being noticed now, I had an identity now, and it was the identity of a sick person.
It’s hard to imagine, until you’ve been one, what it’s like to identify as a sick person. Not someone who is sick, but a sick person. It’s an existence that isn’t rewarding, isn’t fulfilling, but having it completely assimilate into your identity gives you some kind of comfort in how bad you feel, as though it’s just another characteristic of yourself that explains who you are. Like, “I hate being in the sun because I’m a redhead.” There is comfort in that explanation, in that validation.
What this led to was a reliance on external motivation.
Intrinsic motivation is a powerful, beneficial trait for one to have. It means you draw inspiration and motivation from within yourself, not placing goals or other pursuits on qualifications reliant on other people’s actions or existence. It means that no matter what goes on around you, you will remain steadfast in your journey forward, even if the therapists and doctors and friends start to fade, because you want to get better.
External motivation, however, requires judicious use in order to be effective. Consider the example of someone who wants to lose weight. If they pursue that goal as a means to feel more confident, be able to do activities they enjoy, and life a long life, their internal motivation is strong and probably long-lasting. If, however, they want to lose weight because they want to please a partner, want to fit into a dress for that event, or fit into passing societal norms, these are all external motivations. Things that come directly from the outside and will, inevitably, come to pass.
The problem with external motivation is that it peaks and wanes. Internal motivation, of course, has its ups and downs, but your intention lies true within yourself, and is more likely to pick back up because it is a part of you. But if the dance has passed and the dress still doesn’t fit, your entire pursuit is deemed fruitless.
When I began trying to heal, my motivations were all external. I was trying to gain x amount of weight a week (to please my doctor), say the right things (to please my therapist), and pretend everything was okay (to please my parents). Nothing I was doing was really changing who I was, because it was skin-deep. I was doing things to keep up appearances, to conquer tiny milestones to please others, only in the hopes that someday I could fall out of their line of sight and seize control once again. I wasn’t trying to change who I was, I was trying to change who I appeared to be.
For those who were like me, wanting to actually change is nearly unfathomable. But seeming like I wanted to change was desirable. It worked in favor of my ultimate subconscious goal- to be back in control of my life, whether or not I was prepared or qualified to do so. And I wanted reassurance that I needed to change. I continued the pattern of “little crises”, extrapolating my fears and anxieties to friends so that I could hear reassurance that yes, my life was indeed hard, and yes, getting better would be in my favor.
But what I did was get caught on that sudden high of validation, allow myself to fill up on the warm glow of being noticed, of being cared for. And by then I was too satisfied to push further into the actions I could take to pretend this need of being filled entirely by others.
I went to therapy for a year before I ended up in the hospital. This often surprises people. Shouldn’t therapy nip that in the bud? Shouldn’t it prevent something so drastic?
Yes and no. In theory, yes. But in practice? Much more difficult. When I saw therapy as simply a required attendance, I was not an active participant in my health. I had the same rationale as some students- if I go to class, I’m getting an education, whether or not I’m doing any of the studying. I was learning to draw attention away from what I could be doing differently, by assuring the world that “I was getting help”. I was still restricting, still hurting myself, but I was in therapy, so people were less eager to point a finger at my actions and more so at the sadness of circumstance.
I don’t want to paint the picture that sufferers from eating disorders should be blamed for their conditions. But it’s true that relying on the label “anorexic” or “bulimic” or otherwise helps draw attention away from the fact that these actions, whether compulsive or not, are only able to be controlled by the person committing them. And a part of healing the condition is learning to take back control of those compulsions. It requires separating yourself from the implications of the level, from the short-term satisfactions of being noticed and validated, from the “band-aid effect” of going to therapy or the hospital, and changing the way you are.
That’s where the self-empowerment comes in.
You need to pull away from trying to please doctors, or telling therapists what you think they want to hear, or assuring yourself that you’re unwell enough to “deserve” getting better. You need to separate yourself from external motivations and create internal ones instead- weave them into your being, make them a part of who you are. You need to establish core values and intentions and hold yourself to them relentlessly. You need to not only dare to imagine a world where you are changed, but become an active participant in creating that world.
It pains me that no one explained to me this distinction when I was struggling. It may sound simple or even common sense to some, but it is not the message being sent to patients of mental illness, particularly eating disorders. This is a conversation that needs to be had, and one that I feel incredibly strongly about.
It is not enough to acknowledge that you are unwell. That is a remarkable and necessary first step, but not where the journey ends. You need to be reminded that you are not a background character in your own life, some uncontrollable third party with vague reasonings and inexplicable and contradictory actions.
You have an intention. You have a path.
You just have to be the one to keep walking on it.